Hip-Hop and Health | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Hip-Hop and Health

Using an urban art form to understand "the broken health of a population"

Using an urban art form to understand “the broken health of a population”

By James Reisler

What’s hip-hop got to do with overcoming health disparities? It starts with what Christopher Emdin, Assistant Professor of Science Education in TC’s Department of Math, Science & Technology and co-director of TC’s new Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education, calls an understanding of “the rhythm of urbanness.”

“Hip-hop sensibility is very different from having an African-American or a Latino framework,” said Emdin, author of the 2010 book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, who recently teamed up with the rap star GZA to promote science in New York City high schools. “It develops from the intersection of folks who are generally marginalized and serves as the conduit through which their voices are heard. 

Consider a song in which the Philadelphia rap artist Ar-Ab sings with tortured eloquence of pain and frustration stemming from the death of his mother to his stalled career and terrible living conditions.  “What Ar-Ab is doing is describing all the conditions of his present state, giving us more insight into the condition of his health,” says Emdin, who can be seen demonstrating the art of rapping for science in a recent TC interview. “He is not just saying, ‘this is where I am.’ He is laying out the physical conditions leading to his present mental state.”

“The clearest way that we can get insight into the psyche of a broken health of a population is through the music that pours out of the souls of these artists,” Emdin added. “Data mining for health practitioners must involve the deconstruction of the nuances of populations who are crying out for help.”

To do so, health professionals and teachers should begin with an understanding of the metaphors and analogies of hip hop, he said. It’s challenging but doable. “Some of the ideas expressed in hip-hop culture are straight and to the point,” Emdin said. “Others employ nuanced metaphor and analogy.”

Giving high school students the space for the rhythm of their experience can be as simple as allowing them to don fitted hats or read to the accompaniment of background music instead of in total silence, Emdin said. Another way is for schools to offer stipends so teachers can live in the communities they teach.

“We can have great intentions and produce great ideas and articles,” Emdin said. “But if the spaces that we create in the path toward health and equity do not include the rhythm of our students’ experiences, then we’re not meeting our goals.”

Published Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013


More Stories